If you’ve ever gone on a Maui whale watch before, you may have learned that Hawaii’s migratory humpback whales tend to prefer the waters off the southern and western coasts of Maui. Whale sightings are highest in this area, which is one of the reasons why we have such a great time hosting our Whale Watch Tour from Lahaina Harbor. The experience is a joy that we can share with our guests in the winter and spring months every year. The interesting question we are asked often is why the North Pacific Humpback Whale population favors these waters so much. Three specific answers have emerged as scientists continue to observe these graceful giants.
1. Lack of predators. Aside from a few kinds of sharks that feed on just the weak, sick and young humpback whales, there are very few predators that kill humpbacks. They include humans and orcas, also known as killer whales. Neither are a threat to humpbacks here in Hawaii. Killing humpbacks is illegal, as these animals are protected, and as for orcas, Hawaii is not a typical part of their habitat. While orcas are known to be found throughout the world’s oceans, seeing them in Hawaii is extremely rare. There are believed to be just 400 individuals throughout the entire Hawaiian island archipelago, which stretches much farther than the main islands. Most orcas prefer to hunt in colder waters, and they are much more common in the waters off Alaska, where the humpback whales have to go to feed in the summer months.
2. Topography. The waters off Maui’s southern and western coastlines is sheltered from the prevailing trade winds, which generally come from a northeastern direction, pushing ocean swells ahead of them in a way that creates turbulent ocean conditions on the north shore. Meanwhile, the south and west shores are shielded from these winds, and some small storms as well. Not only that, but these waters are also surrounded by the islands of Lanai, Molokai and Kaho’olawe. Encircled by these protective land masses, this particular area of our ocean is also shallower than many other locations throughout Hawaii. The surrounding islands form a shallow basin. For example, the water off Lahaina’s coast is only 300 feet or so in depth. It’s a tremendous depth for we humans, but for a 45-foot whale, such a depth is ideal, and researchers have found that humpbacks prefer waters that are this shallow.
3. Temperature. The waters of Hawaii hover in the 75-degree range, with some fluctuation. Since baby whales haven’t yet developed their protective layer of blubber, it helps that their mothers give birth to them in a warm place and then begin fattening them up with milk before journeying back to the northern waters around Alaska. The calm conditions also make for a nice environment where newborn whales can learn how to swim, come up for air and nurse.
It’s our good fortune that the waters off our coast are favored for these unique qualities that humpbacks enjoy. After all, we enjoy these waters for many of the same reasons! Aside from reproductive activities, this is the place where humpback whales go for rest and relaxation. We certainly can’t argue that. So, if you want to see these remarkable creatures in their natural habitat, we hope to see you aboard one of our whale watch tours soon! Mahalo!